Change in Pittsburgh suggests it's time to ring that old bell

It's hard to misplace a 300-year-old, one-ton English bell, but Pittsburgh has managed it.

It's been hiding in plain sight against a wall in the parking garage beneath the Westin Convention Center Hotel for decades now, a spurned gift believed to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 grand.

How did a bell forged by Henry Penn in 1709 come to such an ignoble place?

Funny story: This was a gift to the Sophie Masloff administration a quarter-century ago, and Mayor Masloff rang in a couple of new years with it in the early 1990s. But when Tom Murphy became mayor in 1994, nobody told him the city had a bell.

There wasn't much talking between those two administrations. There's likely to be even less between that of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his presumptive heir, Bill Peduto, who just won the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Those two get along like Iran and Iraq.

I called Mr. Peduto last week to tell him he might want to put this bell on his to-ring list. He seemed glad to learn about it. He's trying to track down everything and anything of value "so it doesn't disappear.'' (I wasn't kidding about that "Iran and Iraq'' comparison.)

He lamented that the city hasn't had any luck finding the pedestal that goes with the head of former Mayor William Magee, a 3-foot bust that's been ensconced in a public works office for years.

Morton Brown, the city's public art manager, is the point man on such matters, so I sent him a column I wrote about our unrung bell four years ago. I had been prompted then by a historian from Peterborough, England, who'd emailed me a 1987 photo of the bell in what was then the Vista hotel.

That hotel has changed hands three times in the years since, but the bell has never budged from the garage. When I called there in '09, the management had no idea it had been hosting an 18th-century heirloom.

Meeting me at the hotel Thursday afternoon, Mr. Brown nearly drove his motorcycle right up to the bell. It's dusty and has the same fake Liberty-bell style crack drawn in with a Sharpie that I'd seen in 2009, but it's otherwise untouched.

Four years ago, when I tried to goose the Ravenstahl administration into resurrecting this bell, city officials were too busy turning the Golden Triangle into an armed garrison in preparation for the G-20 summit. Nobody even contacted Mr. Brown. Now he's excited about the find.

I suggested it could be rung on extraordinary Pittsburgh occasions such as Stanley Cup victories, the Pirates clinching a winning season or five sunny days in a row. But Mr. Brown urged caution:

"With an artifact of this value and age, even moving it will prove difficult without a professional conservation assessment. ... We would not place outside or ring the bell until we have assurance and guidance.''

I suppose that's prudent, but the English historian, Michael J. Lee, who knows more about these Penn bells than anyone, believes Pittsburgh's can be restored into ringing shape. He proposed in '09 that the remaining Peterborough Cathedral bell and its slightly smaller American cousin be rung in unison in that 300th-anniversary year of the bell's forging.

This bell's only here because the Peterborough Cathedral needed to finance new bells back in the mid-1980s. The late Paul J. Kelly, then general manager of Pittsburgh's Vista, heard about the sale on a visit to England. He and his neighbor James Beck threw in together and paid four figures for three bells. They donated the largest one to the city.

Mr. Brown had thought he'd finally tracked down all the city's artifacts after four years on the job. He remarked on our way out of the garage, "I'm never going to say that again. It is truly exciting -- amazing, even.''

Let's not let another year pass without a joyful clanging from the City Bell. Let it usher in another new year, new mayor or new trophy. For the love of history and Henry Penn, it deserves a better fate than a bumper in a parking garage.

mobilehome - brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: or 412-2263-1947. First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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